How Jessica Walsh and Gerry Graf Turn Data Into Art in Their Advertising

The benefits of playing, not thinking

Headshot of Tim Nudd

CANNES, France—Two well-respected creatives preached the gospel of jumping in, and then letting go, as they described their personal process of making advertising at a Cannes Lions seminar presented by Adobe here Monday morning.

In her first visit to Cannes, Jessica Walsh, a partner at New York design studio Sagmeister & Walsh, took the main stage at the Palais and quoted Picasso—"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up"—to emphasize the importance of play in the creative process.

"I'm a person who loves to play in all aspects of my life, but especially within my work," she said. "I try to approach as much of my work as possible as play, rather than seeing it as a job. And when I look back on my body of work, I realize that the more fun and play that went into the ideas and the process of creating them, the better people seemed to respond to the end result."

Play is a flow state, she said, "where we have this perfect balance of challenge and opportunity within our skill sets. It's really the optimal state of mind to be creative and innovative." Getting into that state of mind can be tricky, though, given all the work stresses and distractions we have. So, she offered five tips for quickly getting into the flow state.

• Confidence

"You have to have the confidence to fail, so you can take risks in your work as a creative."

• Time

"If your deadline is within an hour or even a week, you're likely to just pull from existing styles or techniques or tricks that have worked for you or someone else in the past, because you have no time to experiment and play and reinvent."

• Persistence

"There are actually studies that show the key trait of the most creative thinkers is not talent but purely just having persistence to work through failures, no matter how long it takes to come up with a great idea."

• Space

"Even with enough time and persistence, if your email inbox is full and your Twitter feed is buzzing and your mom is calling you, you're not going to be able to play very well within your work. You need plenty of space away from your daily tasks and responsibilities."

• A sense of humor

"Humor liberates the brain from rigid thinking, and opens it to spontaneity, exploration and risk taking. I think humor also allows the brain to make really interesting and fresh connections between things, which I think is how most new things are created."

As much as creatives need freedom, though, they also need constraints, Walsh said. Otherwise, the possibilities for the direction of the work become endless and overwhelming. She then outlined four projects—two agency projects, one personal project by Stefan Sagmeister, and one of her own personal projects—to illustrate how creative play, reined in by constraints, led to a memorable insight and execution.

Aizone, a Middle East department store. The constraint here, the agency decided, was that the ads had to be in black and white and couldn't feature any of the clothing for sale. A follow-up campaign brought in some color and expanded on the use of inspirational phrases.

Frooti. This campaign for an Indian mango juice made the packaging the hero by keeping the product at regular size while making everything else miniature.

The Happy Show. This campaign, installed at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, offered visitors the experience of walking into Stefan Sagmeister's mind as he attempted to increase his happiness via mediation, cognitive therapy and mood-altering drugs.

40 Days of Dating. This was Walsh's famous 2013 project in which she and a friend, Timothy Goodman, decided to date each other for 40 days, and exhaustively document their experience, in an attempt to excavate their issues and phobias around relationships.

The four projects were playful indeed, and reinforced Walsh's final point—that you "don't need huge budgets or the perfect clients to make the work you want to be making."

Next, Gerry Graf took the stage, and the Barton F. Graf 9000 founder and creative chief talked about how to harness data in our age of information overload, and use it to produce breakthrough creative ideas.

"We have all this information and all this data and research. How do you take that and instead of just regurgitating it back to people, how do you turn it into great insights?" he asked. He then referenced works by two great creative thinkers: Bill Bernbach's famous "The Facts Are Not Enough" speech, and Ray Bradbury's book The Zen of Writing.

"You can't even start a conversation with somebody unless you move away from facts and speak in an emotional, creative way," he said, summarizing Bernbach. As for the lessons of Bradbury's book, he added: "When you're going to start on a project, take in as much information—as much data—as you can. Overload your brain with statistics and facts and information. And then, after you've done all that, you can give your subconscious an objective. You can tell your mind what you want to do."

His own creative insights almost never happen at work during the information gathering process, Graf said.

"What Bradbury said was, 'Stop for a while. Do all the hard work, get all the data, and then tell your subconscious to start working on something.' In my entire life, when I look back on some of my favorite ideas and campaigns I've ever done, almost all of them came from cramming for a long, long time. I live in New York City, and I love to walk home. And almost all of my best ideas come from walking home. I'll just be walking home, not thinking about anything, and ideas will just pop into my head. There has to be transformation from data, knowledge, information, research and analytics into something creative."

Graf then offered either a metaphor or an analogy—"I don't know which is which, but I'll give you one of them," he said—in the world of music. There are 12 tones in Western music, he said, from which almost all the music you've ever heard has been created, just by rearranging the pieces.

"When I look at the world today when I'm creating—and we have more knowledge than ever before about who people are, what they do, what they want, what they like—I think of music and taking pieces of data and sending something back that's art," he said.

The one case study he showed was for Axe Matte—the Barton F. Graf campaign that analyzed any person's social feeds to determine whether he was trying too hard online (and was thus, in Graf's words, "a douchebag").

For creatives still intimidated by data, Graf closed with this:

"This is the best time in my 20-year career to be a creative person. Everyone always used to say, It's the work, the work, the work. And it wasn't. It was the money—this, that and the other thing. Now it's the work, because it has to be the work. No one has to see our stuff. You have to make stuff people want to see. But nowadays we have this information. We have this data. And creative is always better when it's specific. That's what I've found.

"I embrace this data. I embrace this research. And I make much better work now. But you have to do that Bradbury thing, where you take all the information and you take those 12 tones into your subsconscious, and you can't spit it out fast. You have to spin back art and ideas and insights."

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.